Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Burn After Reading (or before viewing)

“There is also… a way of reacting to a crisis – perhaps this way belongs to a later phase in which hope and will have been put aside. I refer to the impassive reflection of the absurdities which become the accepted realities of daily life, as well as the emblems of its disorder. The projection of these absurdities according to their own logic produces an art of impenetrable farce, farce being the final form, as Marx noted in one of his Hegelian moments, of action in a situation that has become untenable.”

Harold Rosenberg

* * *

“Keep an eye on them until it all makes sense.”

The camera zooms down through the heavens, breaking through blue skies and clouds, descending upon a Google Earth version of Washington D.C. It’s a god’s eye view that uncomfortably suggests that the Coen Bros. are descending down from their vaunted seat in the critical elite, members of the pantheon about to bestow wisdom upon us mere mortals. We will learn that what they have to teach us is this: none of it makes sense, it’s all a cosmic joke of idiotic, self serving hubris, greed, misunderstandings, and rage. So why not just sit back and enjoy the ride?

* * *

“What did we learn here?”

(pause) “Not to do it again?”

(longer pause) “But what the fuck did we do?”

The Coen’s have always dodged accusations of being pop-nihilists; pick a label - that they are self-consciously hip; glib, sarcastic, condescending, anti-humanist; their films are populated by caricatures (and (un)usually grotesque ones at that); that they are anti-intellectuals who talk down to their audience while, simultaneously and paradoxically, flattering them. To all of which we might now add, with Burn After Reading: they are officially anti-film.
How do I begin to describe a film populated by idiots (a “league of morons”, as is oft quoted in the film) that engage in dubious and ill-advised affairs (sabotage, subterfuge, blackmail, breaking and entering, adultery, alcoholism, murder) in the midst of a lugubrious, twisting plot that gleefully leads nowhere – the lack of closure at the end of No Country that seemed (at the time) to mean so much has now been transformed into a joke itself – an entire film in which the plot and characters are one huge, unprecedented macguffin, coupled with a denouement that unabashedly acknowledges that we’ve all just been sold a bill of goods. To which a defender might suggest: but that’s the joke, don’t you get it? Yes, I suppose it’s all very clever. But what does it all mean? Or does it have to mean anything at all? Perhaps not, unless one actually seeks edification and engagement with works of art. It is confusing to me, the whole thing. Why make films at all? Genre deconstruction? Perhaps; and yet it seems to me that Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men operate all too smoothly within genre parameters to acquire such a label (not to mention unabashed homages like Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy, or a simple remake like The Ladykillers). No, it seems to me, at least, that the Coen’s tackle a subject/genre to both mock it and prove their mastery of it (and in the process patting us on the back for being clever enough to follow along – we confirm our own mastery over the material through them).
And what of their much vaunted technical prowess? It’s certainly not on display here – there is such a lack of visual distinction that one is forced to wonder how much they’ve really leaned on Deakins (or Sonnenfeld before him). DP Emmanuel Lubezki seems to be filling in the blanks, especially after his work with Cuaron, Malick and Mann. Most of the film’s humor comes from the Coen’s cutting on an action or a face, abruptly ending the shot just before or after it might usually end. It creates a certain amount of tension, to be sure, and they get some ok comedic mileage out of Pitt and Clooney, but the idea gets old quickly and they don’t offer much of anything else. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard film grammar, full of shot-counter-shot and matching eyelines. When in doubt, the Coen’s frame something symmetrically or hold the camera in a fixed position for just a beat or two after a scene has ended, in effect leaving the character stranded in a kind of negative space that exists purely for their discomfort (and our sour satisfaction) . The actors all seem game – much like Woody Allen, another highly mediocre and over praised critic’s darling, A-list stars keep falling all offer themselves to be in a Coen Bros film. There must be something there, some perception that one is going to work with a master and/or really push the boundaries of one’s craft. But Clooney is relegated here to steadily repeated punch lines (“I should try to get in a run” used almost as frequently, and with equally diminishing returns, as “We’re in a tight spot here boys!” or “I’m a Dapper Dan man!” or, to go back to earlier examples, “It’s for kids!” or “It really tied the room together!”). Pitt fairs somewhat better, as he seems to have wandered in from an entirely different film, and yet even he winds up regurgitating the same lines over and over again (repeating the name “Osborne Cox….” ad naseum, the presumption being that hearing the word “cox” repeatedly is amusing) and is summarily dispatched in yet another violent-scene-as-punctuation that the Coen’s have become so adept at. If you think your audience might be getting bored, or if you just need a quick shock tactic, spray some viscera on the wall (arterial spray also gets a work out). It’s indicative of their world view that the one character who actually acts like a human being gets shot and hacked to bits with a hatchet. So what’s it all about?

Critic Glenn Kenny (someone who, I might add, I admire quite a bit) offers this:

“Complaining that the Coen Brothers can be a little too smart-alecky is like bitching that de Sica was excessively humanistic: more than a little obvious, and completely beside the point. They am what they am, and putting aside the proposition that there's some moral/ethical prerogative to privilege humanism over smart-aleck-ness, how well you'll appreciate/enjoy these filmmakers' works depends on how readily you're willing to key into (which doesn't necessarily mean agree with) their perspectives.”

He makes at least one good point: we don’t need to agree with it. And do we frequently "key into" perspectives with which we disagree? I might add that, while it’s not particularly fashionable to suggest that there is a kind of moral/ethical prerogative: if there's not, then what’s the point? And what are we fighting for in November? Instead, we find ourselves with Rosenberg's notion of circular, self perpetuating farce. What does it mean if we look into the void and simply shrug? That sounds an awful lot, to me at least, like giving up. Perhaps that's the Coen's contribution to our modern dystopia - permission to acquiesce.

1 comment:

A.A. Dowd said...

When Jake and I suggest, separately and of our own accord, that you write more about contemporary cinema, this is why: you're too damn good at it to just sit the conversation out. We desperately need this kind of insight, indignation, and contrarian deconstruction in our collective dialogue about new movies. A thoughtful evaluation of something like Playtime, which has been praised and prodded and turned inside out for decades now, strikes me as no more valuable than offering a fresh and sharply analytical perspective on what's happening here and how in our film culture. In other words: I know how you feel about M, a revered and (pretty much universally adored) classic. What I want to read is a half-way convincing recommendation of Body of Lies. Seriously. Convince me.

Now, Burn After Reading. You peg the Coens pretty neatly, and I'm surprised more critics haven't raged, now and in the past, against their flippant, flyweight nihilism. So why do I modestly enjoy their latest? Isn't this just more of the same, another glib reminder that nothing means anything, and we're all just victims of cruel fate in an uncaring world? I think it's a matter of tone-- or, more specifically, interesting and jarring shifts in it. There's a kind of genuine melancholia that weaves it through the film's various absurdities and pointless twists in fate. If (SPOILER ALERT) Pitt is dispatched with characteristic indifference, and the characters' fates are left floating in orbit, satellites in a grand cosmic joke, the Coens allow for brief glimpses at their well-guarded and infrequently-employed empathy.

What lingers with me is not that mean-spirited (though pretty funny) shrug of an ending, but the little moments of middle-aged malaise. McDormant wandering through the park, looking for potential suitors. Jenkins tentatively revealing his affection for his beloved, doing everything he can to rise in her esteem. The deeply sad and delusional pillow talk between Clooney and Swinton. I look at Burn After Reading, and I see two filmmakers doing what they always do, making farce and folly of human suffering. Except that, post-No Country, some degree of poignant understanding appears to have slipped quietly into the equation. It's as if the gravitas of Cormac McCarthy inadverently rubbed off just a little on the Coens, and despite their best efforts to follow that change-of-pace triumph with a back-to-basics lark, a real and unmistakable uncertainty about growing old in this world now informs the philosophies they convey. It's that tension, between entrenched, jokey nihilism and a nagging, unfamiliar discontent, that makes this such an interesting addition to their canon. Can old dogs learn new tricks?